The Psychology of Horror Movies

What about fear, is it fun for a lot of people? What explains how one person can seek out horror movies and another avoid them? If there is a psychology to horror films, what is it and what, if any, are the mental health effects of watching these films? Should some people really avoid them for their mental health?

Thrill of fear

Fear may not seem like much of a “thrill”—especially when compared to other activities known to be pleasurable and increase dopamine in the brain. (Some of these activities, such as sex, exercise, and drinking or drug use, are pleasurable enough to become addictive and may require treatment in some cases.)

However, it is undeniable that many people enjoy watching scary movies. In other words, they derive fun and amusement from anticipating and experiencing stereotypically «negative» emotions such as shock, horror, anxiety, and dread that often belong to the «fight or flight» stress response.

This «thrill» is not just a subjective experience of fear and escape from danger. On a neurobiological level, some scientists say it’s a rush. It is said that watching a scary movie increases endorphins and dopamine in the brain, and that these feel-good neurotransmitters improve mood, relieve pain and relieve stress.

Effects of scary movies on mental health

But are these mental health effects the same for everyone who watches scary movies? The answer to this question may depend on who you talk to.

More emotional resilience

Some experts claim that even people with treatable anxiety problems may benefit from watching horror movies. Why? Because horror films offer a safe environment in which to experiment and regulate fear by encouraging viewers to imagine how to respond to various threats.

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Experts say that exposure to fear and eventual catharsis once we know we’re safe can help people with generalized anxiety disorder find relief from tension and, over time, build resilience to stress. As evidence to support this claim, a 2021 study found that horror fans were more «psychologically resilient» than non-horror fans during the height of the COVID pandemic. (How much of this resilience can really be attributed to horror movies remains open to question.)

Insomnia and sleep problems

For other people, the mental health effects of terror consumption can be mixed at best. Horror can keep you awake and disrupt your sleep due to insomnia, nightmares, or symptoms of physiological arousal such as a racing heart or tense muscles.

Sleep is a key indicator of a person’s mental health, so avoiding horror movies to protect your sleep is smart self-care.

Symptoms of anxiety and panic

A scary movie can also trigger feelings of panic or symptoms of a full-blown panic attack. This shouldn’t be surprising since the goal of any horror movie is to scare you and get your adrenaline pumping.

Once this happens, you may begin to experience the physical sensations associated with the fight-or-flight response: your heart starts racing; your palms are sweating; your breathing becomes shallow; and so on. People with higher sensitivity to anxiety may be more prone to this experience.

A case for watching horror movies

Horror is on the rise and there are a lot of these movies. (If in doubt, check out Rotten Tomatoes’ list, «The 200 Best Horror Movies of All Time.») Even those who aren’t avid consumers can name the iconic moment that scared them the most. Example: the climactic maze scene in «The Shining» or the showering hazard in «Psycho.»

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As for the mental health case for watching horror movies? That is a question best answered by the individual.

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